In 1870, several thousand of the 900,000 residents of Manhattan were Masons. Many of these Masons made it a point to lunch at the Knickerbocker Cottage, a restaurant at 426 Sixth Avenue. At a special table on the second floor, a particularly jovial group of men used to meet regularly.
The Masons who gathered at this table were noted for their good humor and wit. They often discussed the idea of a new fraternity for Masons, in which fun and fellowship would be stressed more than ritual. Two of the table regulars, Walter M. Fleming, M.D., and William J. Florence, an actor, took the idea seriously enough to do something about it.
Billy Florence was a star. After becoming the toast of the New York stage, he toured London, Europe and Middle Eastern countries, always playing to capacity audiences. While on tour in Marseilles, France, Florence was invited to a party given by an Arabian diplomat. The entertainment was something in the nature of an elaborately staged musical comedy. At its conclusion, the guests became members of a secret society.
Florence, recalling the conversations at the Knickerbocker Cottage, realized that this might well be the vehicle for the new fraternity. He made copious notes and drawings at that initial viewing and on two other occasions when he attended the ceremony, once in Algiers and again in Cairo. When he returned to New York in 1870 and showed his material to Dr. Fleming, Fleming agreed.
Dr. Walter Millard Fleming was a prominent physician and surgeon. Born in 1838, he obtained a degree in medicine in Albany, N.Y., in 1862. During the Civil War, he was a surgeon with the 13th New York Infantry Brigade of the National Guard. He then practiced medicine in Rochester, New York, until 1868, when he moved to New York City and quickly became a leading practitioner.
Fleming was devoted to fraternalism. He became a Mason in Rochester and took some of his Scottish Rite work there, then completed his degrees in New York City. He was coroneted a 33° Scottish Rite Mason on September 19, 1872.
Fleming took the ideas supplied by Florence and converted them into what would become the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.). While there is some question about the origin of the Fraternity's name, it is probably more than coincidence that its initials, rearranged, spell out the words "A MASON."
With the help of other Knickerbocker Cottage regulars, Fleming drafted the ritual, designed the emblem and ritual costumes, formulated a salutation, and declared that members would wear a red fez.
The initiation rites, or ceremonials, were drafted by Fleming with the help of three Brother Masons: Charles T. McClenachan, lawyer and expert on Masonic Ritual; William Sleigh Paterson, printer, linguist and ritualist; and Albert L. Rawson, prominent scholar and Mason who provided much of the Arabic background.
The Crescent was adopted as the Jewel of the Order. Though any materials can be used in forming the Crescent, the most valuable are the claws of a Royal Bengal Tiger, united at their base in a gold setting. In the center is the head of a sphinx, and on the back are a pyramid, an urn and a star. The Jewel bears the motto "Robur et Furor," which means "Strength and Fury." Today, the Shrine emblem includes a scimitar from which the crescent hangs, and a five-pointed star beneath the head of the sphinx.
Dr. Fleming and his coworkers also formulated a salutation used today by Shriners - "Es Selamu Aleikum!" - which means, "Peace be with you!" In returning the salutation, the gracious wish is "Aleikum Es Selamu," which means "With you be peace."
The red fez with a black tassel, the Shrine's official headgear, has been handed down through the ages. It derives its name from the place where it was first manufactured - the holy city of Fez, Morocco.
Some historians claim it dates back to about A.D. 980, but the name of the fez, or tarboosh, does not appear in Arabic literature until around the 14th century. One of the earliest references to the headgear is in "Arabian Nights."
On September 26, 1872, in the New York City Masonic Hall, the first Shrine Temple in the United States was organized. Brother McClenachan and Dr. Fleming had completed the ritual and proposed that the first Temple be named Mecca. The original 13 Masons of the Knickerbocker Cottage lunch group were named Charter Members of Mecca Temple. Noble Florence read a letter outlining the "history" of the Order and giving advice on the conduct of meetings. The officers elected were Walter M. Fleming, Potentate; Charles T. McClenachan, Chief Rabban; John A. Moore, Assistant Rabban; Edward Eddy, High Priest and Prophet; George W. Millar, Oriental Guide; James S. Chappel, Treasurer; William S. Paterson, Recorder; and Oswald M. d'Aubigne, Captain of the Guard.
But the organization was not an instant success, even though a second Temple was chartered in Rochester in 1875. Four years after the Shrine's beginnings, there were only 43 Shriners, all but six of whom were from New York.
At a meeting of Mecca Temple on June 6, 1876, in the New York Masonic Temple, a new body was created to help spur the growth of the young fraternity. This governing body was called "The Imperial Grand Council of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for the United States of America." Fleming became the first Imperial Grand Potentate, and the new body established rules for membership and the formation of new Temples. The initiation ritual was embellished, as was the mythology about the fraternity. An extensive publicity and recruiting campaign was initiated.
It worked. Just two years later, in 1878, there were 425 Shriners in 13 Temples. Five of these Temples were in New York, two were in Ohio and the others were in Vermont, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Iowa, Michigan and Massachusetts.
The Shrine continued to grow during the 1880s. By the time of the 1888 Annual Session (convention) in Toronto, there were 7,210 members in 48 Temples located throughout the United States and one in Canada.
While the organization was still primarily social, instances of philanthropic work became more frequent. During an 1888 Yellow Fever epidemic in Jacksonville, Fla., members of the new Morocco Temple and Masonic Knights Templar worked long hours to relieve the suffering populace. In 1889, Shriners came to the aid of the Johnstown Flood victims. In 1898, there were 50,000 Shriners, and 71 of the 79 Temples were engaged in some sort of philanthropic work.
By the turn of the century, the Shrine had come into its own. At its 1900 Imperial Session, representatives from 82 Temples marched in a Washington, D.C., parade reviewed by President William McKinley. Shrine membership was well over 55,000.
The Shrine Was unstoppable in the early 1900s. Membership grew rapidly, and the geographical range of Temples widened. Between 1900 and 1918, eight new Temples were created in Canada. and one each in Honolulu, Mexico City and the Republic of Panama. The organization became, in fact, the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America. New flourishes were added to a growing tradition of colorful pageantry. More Shrine bands were formed. The first Shrine Circus is said to have opened in 1906 in Detroit.
During the same period, there was growing member support for establishing an official Shrine charity. Most Temples had individual philanthropies. and sometimes the Shrine as an organization gave aid. After the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, the Shrine sent $25,000 to help the stricken city, and in 1915 the Shrine contributed $10,000 for the relief of European war victims. But neither the individual projects nor the special one-time contributions satisfied the membership, who wanted to do more.
In 1919, Freeland Kendrick (Lu Lu Temple, Philadelphia) was the Imperial Potentate-elect for the 363,744 Shriners. He had long been searching for a cause for the thriving group to support. In a visit to the Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children in Atlanta, he became aware of the overwhelming needs of crippled children in North America. At the June 1919 Imperial Session, Kendrick proposed establishing "The Mystic Shriners Peace Memorial for Friendless, Orphaned and Crippled Children." His resolution never came to a vote. As Imperial Potentate in 1919 and 1920, he traveled more than 150,000 miles, visiting a majority of the 146 Temples and campaigning for an official Shrine philanthropy.
The climax came at the June 1920 Imperial Session in Portland, Oregon. Kendrick changed his resolution to one establishing the "Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children," to be supported by a $2 yearly assessment from each Shriner.
Conservative Shriners expressed doubts about the Shrine assuming this kind of responsibility. Prospects for approval were dimming when Noble Forrest Adair (Yaarab Temple, Atlanta) rose to speak:
"I was lying in bed yesterday morning, about four o'clock ... and some poor fellow who had strayed from the rest of the band ... stood down there under the window for 25 Minutes playing 'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles.'"
He said that when he awoke later, "I thought of the wandering minstrel, and I wondered if there were not a deep significance in the tune that he was playing for Shriners, 'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles.'
He noted, "While we have spent money for songs and spent money for bands, it's time for the Shrine to spend money for humanity.
"I want to see this thing started. Let's get rid of all the technical objections. And if there is a Shriner in North America," he continued, "who objects to having paid the two dollars after he has seen the first crippled child helped, I will give him a check back for it myself.
When he was through, Noble Adair sat down to thunderous applause. The whole tone of the session had changed. There were other speakers, but the decision had already been reached. The resolution was passed unanimously.
A committee was chosen to determine the site and personnel for the Shriners Hospital. After months of work, research and debate, the committee concluded that there should be not just one hospital but a network of hospitals throughout North America. It was an idea that appealed to Shriners, who liked to do things in a big and colorful way. When the committee brought the proposal to the 1921 Imperial Session in Des Moines, Iowa, it too was passed.
Before the June 1922 Session, the cornerstone was in place for the first Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Shreveport, La. The rules for this hospital, and all the other Shriners Hospitals which would follow, were simple: To be admitted, a child must be from a family unable to pay for the orthopedic treatment he would receive, be under 14 years of age (later increased to 18) and be, in the opinion of the chief of staff, someone whose condition could be helped.
The work of the great Shriners Hospitals network is supervised by the members of the Board of Trustees, who are elected at the annual meeting of the hospital corporation. Each hospital operates under the supervision of a local Board of Governors, a chief of staff and an administrator. Members of the boards are Shriners, who serve without pay.
The network of orthopedic hospitals grew as follows: Shreveport, Sept. 16, 1922; Honolulu, Jan. 2, 1923; Twin Cities, March 12, 1923; San Francisco, June 16, 1923 (relocated to Sacramento in 1997); Portland, Jan. 15, 1924; St. Louis, April 8, 1924; Spokane, Nov. 15, 1924; Salt Lake City, Jan. 22, 1925; Montreal, Feb. 18, 1925; Springfield, Feb. 21, 1925; Chicago, March 20, 1926; Philadelphia, June 24, 1926; Lexington, Nov. 1, 1926; Greenville, Sept. 1, 1927; Mexico City, March 10, 1945; Houston, Feb. 1, 1952; Los Angeles, Feb. 25, 1952; Winnipeg, March 16, 1952 (closed Aug. 12, 1977); Erie, April 1, 1967; Tampa, Oct. 16, 1985, and Sacramento, Calif., April 14, 1997. This newest Shriners Hospital is the only one in the Shrine system that provides orthopedic, burn and spinal cord injury care, and conducts research, all in a single facility.
The first patient to be admitted in 1922 was a little girl from the red clay country south of Shreveport, La., a tot with a club foot who had learned to walk on the top of her foot rather than the sole. The first child to be admitted in Minneapolis was a Blackfoot Indian boy suffering from the deformities of polio. Since that time, more than 575,000 children have been treated at the 22 Shriners Hospitals. Surgical techniques developed in Shriners Hospitals have become standard in the orthopedic world. Thousands of children have been fitted with arm and leg braces and artificial limbs, most of them made in special labs in the hospitals by expert technicians.
From 1950 to 1960, the Shrine's funds for helping children increased rapidly. At the same time, the waiting lists of new patients for admission to Shriners Hospitals began to decline, due to the polio vaccine and new antibiotics. Thus, Shriners found themselves able to provide additional services, and Shrine leaders began to look for other ways they could help the children of North America.
One result was the collating of the medical records of patients of Shriners Hospitals. By placing the records of each patient and treatment on computer and microfilm, valuable information was made available to all Shrine surgeons and the medical world as a whole. This process, begun in 1959, also made it easier to initiate clinical research in Shrine orthopedic hospitals.
Shriners Hospitals had always engaged in clinical research, and in the early '60s, the Shrine aggressively entered the structured research field and began earmarking funds for research projects. By 1967, Shriners were spending $20,000 on orthopedic research. Today, the annual research budget totals approximately $24 million. Shrine researchers are working on a vast variety of projects, including studies of bone and joint diseases, such as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis; increasing basic knowledge of the structure and function of connective tissue; and refining functional electrical stimulation, which is enabling children with spinal cord injuries to have limited use of their arms and legs.